Ben Allen: The YANP Interview
December 6th, 2012 by anthony
Ben Allen is one of the godfathers of the modern Lexington music scene. As a member of several local bands including Wretched Worst and Arcane Rifles and as a former General Manager and current Media Supervisor of WRFL, he’s helped shape the music that’s being produced in Lexington today. I sat down to talk with him about his new Live Island(bandcamp) solo project, the history of the Lexington music scene and WRFL’s Boomslang festival.
Anthony: How is working solo with Live Island different from other bands you’ve been involved with, like Arcane Rifles and such?
Ben Allen: On the one hand it’s easier because I can work on it whenever I want to. The ideas I can take straight away and make them sound the way I want them to sound. I have that experience playing guitar, bass, drums, synthesizer all in band settings, so I can bring that to the table. Of course, my skill set is somewhat limited but with this project I’m not really worried about that mainly because I just want it to be that. So it’s really easy in that regard. I can agree to play shows whenever I want to, I can work on the artwork and all other manners of the project on my own and not get in anyone’s way and not rely on anyone else. Then on the other hand it can be really problematic because I’m responsible for it, so I have to be the one who actually shows up. Instead of showing up and not doing anything, I have to show up and do work. And I consider it work because in the same way it’s my job, it’s nuts- I just stop thinking and allow whatever it is to work. I have to turn off my head that says I have a thousand other different things to do and just do that.
A: You say it’s work, does it ever cross the line into becoming tedious or a burden?
BA: Not the way I work. And I could probably get a little better at this, I like to go from an idea of a rhythm or a melody- and I consider them tones or modes or whatever and it will evolve as I’m working on it- but I go straight from that to a recording device like my phone or a tape recorder that I keep around and go straight from that to an instrument and try to work out one or two parts and build on it like that. Most of the time whatever comes out of just that first initial process is just a rough rendering and often time I’ll just leave it at that and see where it stands for a certain amount of time before I approach rerecording it. That’s about as tedious as it gets for me. I don’t like to pick apart recordings, I don’t like to- I listen back to things to listen for things I know need to be fixed here and there but I’ve been in a lot of situations where things have been tedious with other bands and I don’t really like that feeling where it slows down and the work stops.
A: So you like an element of rawness?
BA: Absolutely. I think most of what I’ve worked on, that I’ve really been proud of, has the character of not being perfect and not being an attempt at being prefect. I don’t mind subtle mistakes, whether I’m the only person who hears them or other people can hear them too. It’s part of what makes interesting music interesting.
A: Do you have a preference between being in a band or being solo? Is it just something that you do to break up the monotony?
BA: Well, it’s a all kind of happened naturally. Most of the time it hasn’t been too deliberate. I’m thinking about how I got involved with Cadaver in Drag and how it evolved with Wretched Worst and really most of my bands started by just talking about music. Then you find a spot where some instruments are located, whether they were mine or other peoples and we just start bashing out some songs. The energy would either continue, like with Wretched Worst, I mean we were together or I was with them, they’re still together, for about four or five years. That’s a really long time, but the ideas just kept coming. In other instances you get that initial spark and it fades because of what you were saying- you start thinking about it like work. It’s a delicate balance between being open creatively and then how are you going to do it? Who’s going to play what parts? Is everyone holding their weight, you know? That’s where I think a lot of tension comes from in a lot of bands, so going back and forth from solo projects and band projects and wanting to deal with music naturally in the moment works. I remember when I started the Caves project that was just because it just seemed like the most logical thing to do. Having come out of a standard rock ‘n’ roll band with Mad Shadows, I think it was a combination of not really seeing who to play with at that point and just wanting to do something. So I just plugged some things in at the basement of the Charles Mansion, in the laundry room, and just did some stuff and it kind of evolved out of that. I don’t know how deliberate it’s been, other than deliberately wanting to do something.
A: Who are some of the influences for Live Island?
BA: That’s like the classic question, musically I listen to all kind of things and they all wind up in there somehow. I think for me it’s based on my own experiences compounding over the years. By that I mean I don’t mean only bands I’ve played in or things I’ve learned how to do but hearing my friends band and talking to them about stuff, learning from them how they do things. Over time just hearing my own voice and connecting to music that way. I tend to go back to a lot of the same artists. I don’t know why but I think I remember hearing, when I came to UK in ’97 to go to school, it was the first time I heard real punk music. It was a weird, kind of circular thing. During my senior year I heard The Cure’s first few albums and that led me to Joy Division which led me back to The Fall and The Sex Pistols which led me to Iggy Pop. Once I got there, between Iggy Pop, David Bowie and Brian Eno, it was kind of a central pivot point for me. I think hearing Funhouse for the first time when I was in California was a big deal. But then, there have been a lot of records like that, a lot of Nick Cave’s work I’ve fallen in love with and then fallen out of love with. I keep going around and around with a lot of things. With this project, I really like dub music, and I’ve taken a lot from that in this project. And to talk about influences, where I grew up and moving here and meeting the people I’ve met, the radio station WRFL, my wife and daughter are a huge influence on what I do. I look at this project as music I can just play in the house. I have tracks that I haven’t finished yet that are like that, songs that I would want to put on when I’m with my family.
A: How has that audience response to Live Island been?
BA: It’s been pretty positive I think. I want to release more stuff because I think up to this point, the recorded stuff I’ve put out, the two tracks, are of a certain shade. I like that and I want it to continue to be a part of it but there’s other pieces that I’ve recorded and been working on, that are different shades that would give the project probably a little bit more of the vision that I have for it. But overall it’s been positive. I’ve played a handful of shows now that I’ve enjoyed because this is a completely different approach for me. The challenge is something that I like a lot. Looking back, I’ve received a lot of energy from the fact that I seem to take a lot of turns back and forth between what I’ve done, playing with bands or playing with an acoustic guitar or doing more performance based pieces where the music is more or less just an intense involved partner with the visual aspect. With this, I think I’m collecting a lot of elements from those projects and trying to put those together. And it seems to be working and people are responding pretty well. A lot of the feedback I’ve gotten is that folks want to hear more and I want to hear more.
A: Since you’ve been making music for over a decade at this point, how have you seen the music scene change since the early 2000′s to this point? Or has it not changed so much at all?
BA: I feel that it’s definitely changed, but not in a progression. By that I mean that it has progressed, just not in a straight line. When I got here in ’97, there was this venue, Yat’s, there was a close-knit-and WRFL too- there was a pretty close-knit grouping of artists: musicians, painters, writers, dancers, around Yat’s and WRFL. Around the next three or four years, with the efforts of people like Ross Compton, Mike Connelly, and the guys in Hair Police: Robert Beatty, Trevor Tremaine and Mike Connolly as well as John Ferguson from Big Fresh, those are some of the first shows we went to in town. It seemed like all these different people were uniting around that one venue. A lot of national acts from what you would call “the underground” were coming through. Everybody had different takes on what to do. I was in a really loud, abrasive punk band called Brass Tax, which was really Stooges-esque, but you had a lot of power-pop bands like Speed Train and they all revolved around that venue. Then that venue closed, so everything just scattered out to all the basements in Lexington. Things got much more experimental and much more direct, because if you’re playing in a basement there isn’t much separation between you and the other people. That whole situation evolved over the next five years to where Warmer Milks and Hair Police hit more of a national recognition stage, or international really. Then more bands started forming from this breeding pool and more venues opened up like Al’s [Bar] and the Dame started to do more shows. All of these people who had been around for a while saw that not only was there a generation below them but a generation below that. I think what you have now is a bunch of people going out there and giving it a try, whether they’re referencing any localisms or not and I think that’s totally great. And I think there are people who have seen what’s been happening for the last ten, twenty years and tried to derive a lot of inner workings out of that. Resonant Hole is a good example of that because you have people who’ve been here the whole duration and you have people who have been working out of Lexington for about three or four years.
A: Would you say people in Lexington are willing to be more collaborative rather than splintered?
BA: Lexington can be very collaborative but also very splintered. It just depends on how courageous or inventive or non-serious folks are willing to be about it. That’s another thing that’s sort of cropped up, a lot of bands or artists taking things very seriously and that’s fine. It shows a certain evolution in the music life of a town but it’s definitely not what was going on in 2000, 2001 when you kind of took it seriously but only for a few minutes. It wasn’t laid in concrete or something.
A: You’re a married man with a full time job. At this point in your life, how do you judge musical success? Do a certain amount of people have to appreciate it or is succeeding more elusive?
BA: That’s been, for me, the pivot point of the whole deal for a long time. I know for me the moment I started thinking “Do people like it? Is it worth doing?” all those fearful thoughts, that’s when I actually stop working on things. I rather actually be working. So, in terms of measuring success, spending time on it and creating things that I want to hear and people may like it. If you make something that you like there will be an audience for it somewhere. I like the fact that technologically I can do this and put it somewhere where people can find it and have it for free. That’s fine by me. I look at it as some sort of communication and if I take it so seriously where people have to like this or it’s a failure then that’s kind of like saying they have to be captivated and I have to be their captor. I keep asking myself sometimes “Is it worth doing?”, and the only response that makes sense to me is things keep coming into my head to record, sounds show up. I get ideas. I can either let those ideas float away, which is fine, or I can put them down and see what happens and I enjoy that part. That level of enjoyment is how I measure success or not.
A: Do you have a favorite musical project that you’ve been a part of?
BA: Every project I’ve been in I’ve had favorite moments, where that fearful component is just gone. I’ve had favorite recording experiences, I’ve had favorite show experience, and I’ve had favorite riding-in-the-van experiences. It’s all been amazing but with every project I’ve also had horrible, frustrating periods. I think a lot about Wretched Worst, and one of my favorite aspects about that band-I love playing with Matt Minter- we had the band Matt Minter, Joey Tucci and Thad Watson, we had a lot of fun making the Wretched Worst stuff which would come from Matt. When we would take a break, it would just be me, Joey and Thad and it would be the most non-wretched Worst music and I think the counter-point is what made the band so fun. Playing with Cadaver in Drag-that was amazing and the recording experience was amazing and one of the wildest recording sessions I’ve ever been in. At that moment it was one of the greatest influxes of creative material and we just sort of slammed together in making that happen. Going back to Mad Shadows, we had some great shows and those are some of my favorite people to play with. Every group is a favorite and that’s why I think about what you asked me before about influences. What I’m trying to do is take all of those favorite moments and see what I can do, even if it’s just referencing them or enjoying the memory of them.
A: So, do you see Live Island as being a type of greatest hits of all the things you’ve enjoyed in the past?
BA: I don’t see a Live Island record as being a hodgepodge of styles, like I would do a song to represent this one band and play it in this style. I think it’s more or less in the creative process itself. Those kinds of things drive what I’m doing now and the character and the element of the project might be completely different from any of the other stuff I’ve done. The heart of it comes from all those other places I’ve been.
A: You’re in a very unique position where your job is concerned as the media supervisor for WRFL, the influence you can have over certain bands and being an architect of the Boomslang festival, which happened recently. Do you see the festival growing and expanding more or staying at about the same level or possibly receding in some ways in the future?
BA: The way I take my job at WRFL is primarily a facilitator. That basically means making sure what the student leadership wants to do stays in line with UK policies, which is relatively easy to do. I also make sure certain bills get paid and invoices get taken care of and the students have the means to follow through with their plans. As an assistant in planning the only input I try to have is just in reference to the past and also in reference to the community. The first year I was involved, the festival before this one, I was so new in the job it was mostly facilitation. I just made sure the things that needed to be done were getting handled properly. This year I did have a bit of a hand in expanding but for the most part the students handled who they wanted to play. The only thing that I’m trying to suggest to them, because I can only really operate at the level of suggestion, I try to leave as much of the aesthetic planning in their hands as possible. It’s their festival; I’ve had my time as a GM a long time ago. It’s clearly outlined in my job description what I’m supposed to do and what I’m not supposed to do and what I’m not supposed to do is make those types of decisions. Now, I can make a lot of suggestions, which is what I try to do. The only things I would suggest really taking a look at is if the size of the festival realistic for a community of this size? To be quite honest, I think we could scale it a bit better. For our community for the type of music being promoted, the audience is still relatively small. I mean, it’s definitely grown but you’re talking, out of the entire city, maybe 500 to maybe 1000 folks who would really pay to see a lot of shows we have going on. We promote to outside the city too but…and that is maybe a high estimate. Maybe just scaling the festival down to meet those numbers would be good. I also think finally and once and for all finding out what the mission of the festival is and how to incorporate that as a benefit to local music. Those are the two big questions, because personally I’m sort of… the idea of importing culture by just bringing in bands that people wouldn’t normally see, there’s a positive aspect in just that-seeing something people might not normally see. There is also a negative side to it, the idea that this is good, so this is what you need to live up to. That can be a dangerous thought. I hope a lot of people would fight against that thought but to promote it in a festival; I’m kind of resistant to that.